A Philosopher's Blog

Gaming & Groping I: Motivations

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on October 31, 2016

On the positive side, online gaming allows interaction with gamers all over the world. On the negative side, some gamers are horrible. While I have been a gamer since the days of Pong, one of my early introductions to “the horrible” was on Xbox live. In a moment of deranged optimism, I hoped that chat would allow me to plan strategy with my team members and perhaps make new gamer friends. While this did sometimes happen, the dominate experience was an unrelenting spew of insults and threats between gamers. I solved this problem by clipping the wire on a damaged Xbox headset and sticking the audio plug into my controller—the spew continued, but had nowhere to go.

There is an iron law of technology that any technology that can be misused will be misused. There are also specific laws that fall under this general law. One is the iron law of gaming harassment:  any gaming medium that allows harassment will be used to harass. While there have been many failed attempts at virtual reality gaming, it seems that it might become the new gaming medium. In any case, harassment in online VR games is already a thing. Just as VR is supposed to add a new level to gaming, it also adds a new level to harassment—such as virtual groping. This is an escalation over the harassment options available in most games. Non VR games are typical limited to verbal harassment and some action harassment, such as the classic tea bagging. For those not familiar with this practice, it is when one player causes their character to rapidly repeat crouch on top of a dead character. The idea is that the players is repeatedly slapping their virtual testicles against the virtual corpse of a foe. This presumably demonstrates contempt for the opponent and dominance on the part of the bagger. As might be imagined, this act speaks clearly about a player’s mental and moral status.

Being a gamer and a philosopher, I do wonder a bit about the motivations of those that engage in harassment and how their motivation impacts the ethics of their behavior. While I will not offer a detailed definition of harassment, the basic idea is that it requires sustained abuse. This is to distinguish it from a quick expression of anger.

In some cases, harassment seems to be motivated primarily by the enjoyment the harasser gets from getting a response from their target. The harasser is not operating from a specific value system that leads them to attack certain people; they are equal opportunity in their attacks. Back when I listened to what other gamers said, it was easy to spot this sort of person—they would go after everyone and tailor their spew based on what they seemed to believe about the target’s identity. As an example, if the harasser though their target was African-American, they would spew racist comments. As another example, if the target was the then exceedingly rare female gamer, they would spew sexist remarks. As a third example, if the target was believed to be a white guy, the attack would usually involve comments about the guy’s mother or assertions that the target is homosexual.

While the above focuses on what a person says, the discussion also applies to the virtual actions in the game. As noted above, some gamers engage in tea-bagging because that is the worst gesture they can make in the game. In games that allow more elaborate interaction, the behavior will tend to be analogous to groping in the real world. This is because such behavior is the most offensive behavior possible in the game and thus will create the strongest reaction.

While a person who enjoys inflicting this sort of abuse does have some moral problems, they are probably selecting their approach based on what they think will most hurt the target rather than based on a commitment to sexism, racism or other such value systems. To use an obvious analogy, think of a politician who is not particularly racist but is willing to use this language in order to sway a target audience.

There are also those who engage in such harassment as a matter of ideology and values. While their behavior is often indistinguishable from those who engage in attacks of opportunity, their motivation is based on a hatred of specific types of people. While they might enjoy the reaction of their target, that is not their main objective. Rather, the objectives are to express their views and attack the target of their hate because of that hate. Put another way, they are sincere racists or sexists in that it matters to them who they attack. To use the analogy to a politician, they are like a demagogue who truly believes in their own hate speech.

In terms of virtual behavior, such as groping, these people are not just using groping as a tool to get a reaction. It is an attack to express their views about their target based on their hatred and contempt. The groping might also not merely be a means to an end, but a goal in itself—the groping has its own value to them.

While both sorts of harassers are morally wrong, it is an interesting question as to which is worse. It could be argued that the commitment to evil of the sincere harasser (the true racist or sexist) make them worse than the opportunist. After all, the opportunist is not committed to evil views, they just use their tools for their amusement. In contrast, the sincere harasser not only uses the tools, but believes in their actions and truly hates their target. That is, they are evil for real.

While this is very appealing, it is worth considering that the sincere harasser has the virtue of honesty; their expression of hatred is not a deceit.  To go back to the politician analogy, they are like the politician who truly believes in their professed ideology—their evil does have the tiny sparkle of the virtue of honesty.

In contrast, the opportunist is dishonest in their attacks and thus compound their other vices with that of dishonesty. To use the politician analogy, they are like the Machiavellian manipulator who has no qualms about using hate to achieve their ends.

While the moral distinctions between the types of harassers is important, they generally do not matter to their targets. After all, what matters to (for example) a female gamer who is being virtually groped while trying to enjoy a VR game is not the true motivation of the groper, but the groping. Thus, from the perspective of the target, the harasser of opportunity and the sincere harasser are on equally bad moral footing—they are both morally wrong. In the next essay, the discussion will turn to the obligations of gaming companies in regards to protecting gamers from harassment.


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Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on October 28, 2016

While you are most likely not a criminal, it is likely that the police have a digital version of your face on file. This is because most states put driver’s license photos into a database accessible to the police—and, one would assume, the federal government. The system works in conjunction with facial recognition software (like Facebook uses to identify people in your photos) to identify suspects. For example, if someone robs a convenience store and the police do not recognize them, the image from the surveillance camera can be matched against the database that could contain your face. Ideally, the software would generate a short list that includes the perpetrator. Problematically, the software could generate a list of innocent people who might then end up in unpleasant interactions with the state.

There are, of course, some practical issues with the current technology. One is that the photos the police have of suspects tend to be of low quality, thus making false matches more likely. Another is that in such a large database there will be many people who look alike, thus the chance of false matches will be high even with good photos. As anyone familiar with the DMV knows, driver’s license photos also tend to vary greatly in quality and consistency, thus making false matches likely.

The current software also has problems with people who have darker skin, thus making false matches more likely for people of color than white people. While some might suspect racism or bias at work, it has been claimed that this occurs because darker skin has less contrast than lighter skin, making accurate matches more difficult. If this technical issue cannot be solved, then it is almost certain that there will be charges of racism and bias as more dark skinned people are subject to false matches than lighter people. Even if this is purely a technical issue with no actual bias, it would certainly create the impression of bias and feed into the view that policing is biased in America. It also raises a moral concern about the use of such software in terms of its consequences: while it might have the benefit of assisting the police in finding actual criminals, it could have the harm of fanning the existing flames of mistrust and worries about police bias against people of color. These factors would need to be balanced against each other, at least until the recognition disparity is solved.

In addition to specific concerns about the recognition of darker skinned people, there is the general concern about the accuracy of the software in identifying people. Since most people with driver’s licenses will be in the database, innocent people will end up being investigated by the police because the software pegs them as adequately resembling a suspect. While most interactions with the police would presumably be quick and harmless, interactions with the state can go very badly indeed—even for innocent people. As such, due moral consideration should be paid to this fact.

There are, of course, the usual concerns about privacy and intrusion of the state. While some citizens are terrified of the idea of a national database of guns, what is being constructed is an even more invasive database—a database of our faces. A “facebase”, if you will. As such, those who are dedicated to Second Amendment rights should be worried about this “facebase.” Others who are concerned about privacy and the overreach of big government should also be worried and insist that proper controls and limitations are in place to protect the rights of citizens.

It could be countered that people with nothing to hide have nothing to fear—but this slogan fails to address the legitimate concerns about privacy. After all, no one who is worried about a national database of guns would be content with being told that if they have their guns legally, then they have nothing to fear from such a database.

A better counter is to appeal to the positive consequences. That is, by giving up privacy rights and becoming part of a “perpetual lineup” we will be safer from criminals and terrorists. This argument does have considerable appeal—but it must be assessed properly in terms of what the approach yields in benefits and what it costs in terms of intrusion and other harms. Americans have, in general, been far too quick to give away real rights and suffer real harms in return for the illusion of safety. We should stop doing this. One useful approach would be to imagine that what is being given up is a right a person has a strong emotional attachment to—this would help offset the emotional appeal to fear of criminals and terrorists. For example, a pro-gun person could imagine that the system was creating a database of his guns to match up against guns supposedly used by terrorists or criminals. This tactic obviously has no logical weight—it is merely intended as counter to emotional manipulation by means of an analogy.

A final concern, as with all such gather of data, is worry about the various potential misuses of the information. I would assume that these databases have already been hacked and the information is now being examined by foreign governments, criminals and terrorists. Because of this, we should consider the consequences of maintaining or expanding the program. After all, whatever ends up in our databases inevitably ends up around the world. There are also concerns that the data would be made available to the private sector for use in advertising, political campaigning and other purposes. This is not a concern unique to the “facebase” but it is still a matter of concern.

In closing, that bad DMV photo might prove to be a blessing or a curse. On the positive side, it might be so bad that the police will not be able to match you should you commit a crime. On the negative side, that bad photo might get you matched up often and thus subject to friendly inquiries from the police. But, you might make new friends or get to see how a taser works.


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The Simulation II: Escape

Posted in Epistemology, Metaphysics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on October 26, 2016

The cover to Wildstorm's A Nightmare on Elm St...

Elon Musk and others have advanced the idea that we exist within a simulation, thus adding a new chapter to the classic problem of the external world. When philosophers engage this problem, the usual goal is show how one can know that one’s experience correspond to an external reality. Musk takes a somewhat more practical approach: he and others are allegedly funding efforts to escape this simulation. In addition to the practical challenges of breaking out of a simulation, there are also some rather interesting philosophical concerns about whether such an escape is even possible.

In regards to the escape, there are three main areas of interest. These are the nature of the simulation itself, the nature of the world outside the simulation and the nature of the inhabitants of the simulation. These three factors determine whether or not escape from the simulation is a possibility.

Interestingly enough, determining the nature of the inhabitants involves addressing another classic philosophical problem, that of personal identity. Solving this problem involves determining what it is to be a person (the personal part of personal identity), what it is to be distinct from all other entities and what it is to be the same person across time (the identity part of personal identity). Philosophers have engaged this problem for centuries and, obviously enough, have not solved it. That said, it is easy enough to offer some speculation within the context of Musk’s simulation.

Musk and others seem to envision a virtual reality simulation as opposed to physical simulation. A physical simulation is designed to replicate a part of the real world using real entities, presumably to gather data. One science fiction example of a physical simulation is Frederik Pohl’s short story “The Tunnel under the World.” In this story the inhabitants of a recreated town are forced to relive June 15th over and over again in order to test various advertising techniques.

If we are in a physical simulation, then escape would be along the lines of escaping from a physical prison—it would be a matter of breaking through the boundary between our simulation and the outer physical world. This could be a matter of overcoming distance (travelling far enough to leave the simulation—perhaps Mars is outside the simulation) or literally breaking through a wall. If the outside world is habitable, then survival beyond the simulation would be possible—it would be just like surviving outside any other prison.

Such a simulation would differ from the usual problem of the external world—we would be in the real world; we would just be ignorant of the fact that we are in a constructed simulation. Roughly put, we would be real lab rats in a real cage, we would just not know we are in a cage. But, Musk and others seem to hold that we are (sticking with the rat analogy) rats in a simulated cage. We may even be simulated rats.

While the exact nature of this simulation is unspecified, it is supposed to be a form of virtual reality rather than a physical simulation. The question then, is whether or not we are real rats in a simulated cage or simulated rats in a simulated cage.

Being real rats in this context would be like the situation in the Matrix: we have material bodies in the real world but are jacked into a virtual reality. In this case, escape would be a matter of being unplugged from the Matrix. Presumably those in charge of the system would take better precautions than those used in the Matrix, so escape could prove rather difficult. Unless, of course, they are sporting about it and are willing to give us a chance.

Assuming we could survive in the real world beyond the simulation (that it is not, for example, on a world whose atmosphere would kill us), then existence beyond the simulation as the same person would be possible. To use an analogy, it would be like ending a video game and walking outside—you would still be you; only now you would be looking at real, physical things. Whatever personal identity might be, you would presumably still be the same metaphysical person outside the simulation as inside. We might, however, be simulated rats in a simulated cage and this would make matter even more problematic.

If it is assumed that the simulation is a sort of virtual reality and we are virtual inhabitants, then the key concern would be the nature of our virtual existence. In terms of a meaningful escape, the question would be this: is a simulated person such that they could escape, retain their personal identity and persist outside of the simulation?

It could be that our individuality is an illusion—the simulation could be rather like Spinoza envisioned the world. As Spinoza saw it, everything is God and each person is but a mode of God. To use a crude analogy, think of a bed sheet with creases. We are the creases and the sheet is God. There is actually no distinct us that can escape the sheet. Likewise, there is no us that can escape the simulation.

It could also be the case that we exist as individuals within the simulation, perhaps as programmed objects.  In this case, it might be possible for an individual to escape the simulation. This might involve getting outside of the simulation and into other systems as a sort of rogue program, sort of like in the movie Wreck-It Ralph. While the person would still not be in the physical world (if there is such a thing), they would at least have escaped the prison of the simulation.  The practical challenge would be pulling off this escape.

It might even be possible to acquire a physical body that would host the code that composes the person—this is, of course, part of the plot of the movie Virtuosity. This would require that the person make the transition from the simulation to the real world. If, for example, I were to pull off having my code copied into a physical shell that thought it was me, I would still be trapped in the simulation. I would no more be free than if I was in prison and had a twin walking around free. As far as pulling of such an escape, Virtuosity does show a way—assuming that a virtual person was able to interact with someone outside the simulation.

As a closing point, the problem of the external world would seem to haunt all efforts to escape. To be specific, even if a person seemed to have managed to determine that this is a simulation and then seemed to have broken free, the question would still arise as to whether or not they were really free. It is after all, a standard plot twist in science fiction that the escape from the virtual reality turns out to be virtual reality as well. This is nicely mocked in the “M. Night Shaym-Aliens!” episode of Rick and Morty. It also occurs in horror movies, such as Nightmare on Elm Street, —a character trapped in a nightmare believes they have finally awoken in the real world, only they have not. In the case of a simulation, the escape might merely be a simulated escape and until the problem of the external world is solved, there is no way to know if one is free or still a prisoner.


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The Simulation I: The Problem of the External World

Posted in Epistemology, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on October 24, 2016

Elon Musk and others have advanced the idea that we exist within a simulation. The latest twist on this is that he and others are allegedly funding efforts to escape this simulation. This is, of course, the most recent chapter in the ancient philosophical problem of the external world. Put briefly, this problem is the challenge of proving that what seems to be a real external world is, in fact, a real external world. As such, it is a problem in epistemology (the study of knowledge).

The problem is often presented in the context of metaphysical dualism. This is the view that reality is composed of two fundamental categories of stuff: mental stuff and physical stuff. The mental stuff is supposed to be what the soul or mind is composed of, while things like tables and kiwis (the fruit and the bird) are supposed to be composed of physical stuff. Using the example of a fire that I seem to be experiencing, the problem would be trying to prove that the idea of the fire in my mind is being caused by a physical fire in the external world.

Renee Descartes has probably the best known version of this problem—he proposes that he is being deceived by an evil demon that creates, in his mind, an entire fictional world. His solution to this problem was to doubt until he reached something he could not doubt: his own existence. From this, he inferred the existence of God and then, over the rest of his Meditations on First Philosophy, he established that God was not a deceiver. Going back to the fire example, if I seem to see a fire, then there probably is an external, physical fire causing that idea. Descartes did not, obviously, decisively solve the problem: otherwise Musk and his fellows would be easily refuted by using Descartes’ argument.

One often overlooked contribution Descartes made to the problem of the external world is consideration of why the deception is taking place. Descartes attributes the deception of the demon to malice—it is an evil demon (or evil genius). In contrast, God’s goodness entails he is not a deceiver. In the case of Musk’s simulation, there is the obvious question of the motivation behind it—is it malicious (like Descartes’ demon) or more benign? On the face of it, such deceit does seem morally problematic—but perhaps the simulators have excellent moral reasons for this deceit. Descartes’s evil demon does provide the best classic version of Musk’s simulation idea since it involves an imposed deception. More on this later.

John Locke took a rather more pragmatic approach to the problem. He rejected the possibility of certainty and instead argued that what matters is understanding matters enough to avoid pain and achieve pleasure. Going back to the fire, Locke would say that he could not be sure that the fire was really an external, physical entity. But, he has found that being in what appears to be fire has consistently resulted in pain and hence he understands enough to want to avoid standing in fire (whether it is real or not). This invites an obvious comparison to video games: when playing a game like World of Warcraft or Destiny, the fire is clearly not real. But, because having your character fake die in fake fire results in real annoyance, it does not really matter that the fire is not real. The game is, in terms of enjoyment, best played as if it is.

Locke does provide the basis of a response to worries about being in a simulation, namely that it would not matter if we were or were not—from the standpoint of our happiness and misery, it would make no difference if the causes of pain and pleasure were real or simulated. Locke, however, does not consider that we might be within a simulation run by others. If it were determined that we are victims of a deceit, then this would presumably matter—especially if the deceit were malicious.

George Berkeley, unlike Locke and Descartes, explicitly and passionately rejected the existence of matter—he considered it a gateway drug to atheism. Instead, he embraces what is called “idealism”, “immaterialism” and “phenomenalism.” His view was that reality is composed of metaphysical immaterial minds and these minds have ideas. As such, for him there is no external physical reality because there is nothing physical. He does, however, need to distinguish between real things and hallucinations or dreams. His approach was to claim that real things are more vivid that hallucinations and dreams. Going back to the example of fire, a real fire for him would not be a physical fire composed of matter and energy. Rather, I would have a vivid idea of fire. For Berkeley, the classic problem of the external world is sidestepped by his rejection of the external world.  However, it is interesting to speculate how a simulation would be handled by Berkeley’s view.

Since Berkeley does not accept the existence of matter, the real world outside the simulation would not be a material world—it would a world composed of minds. A possible basis for the difference is that the simulated world is less vivid than the real world (to use his distinction between hallucinations and reality). On this view, we would be minds trapped in a forced dream or hallucination. We would be denied the more vivid experiences of minds “outside” the simulation, but we would not be denied an external world in the metaphysical sense. To use an analogy, we would be watching VHS, while the minds “outside” the simulation would be watching Blu-Ray.

While Musk does not seem to have laid out a complete philosophical theory on the matter, his discussion indicates that he thinks we could be in a virtual reality style simulation. On this view, the external world would presumably be a physical world of some sort. This distinction is not a metaphysical one—presumably the simulation is being run on physical hardware and we are some sort of virtual entities in the program. Our error, then, would be to think that our experiences correspond to material entities when they, in fact, merely correspond to virtual entities. Or perhaps we are in a Matrix style situation—we do have material bodies, but receive virtual sensory input that does not correspond to the physical world.

Musk’s discussion seems to indicate that he thinks there is a purpose behind the simulation—that it has been constructed by others. He does not envision a Cartesian demon, but presumably envisions beings like what we think we are.  If they are supposed to be like us (or we like them, since we are supposed to be their creation), then speculation about their motives would be based on why we might do such a thing.

There are, of course, many reasons why we would create such a simulation. One reason would be scientific research: we already create simulations to help us understand and predict what we think is the real world. Perhaps we are in a simulation used for this purpose. Another reason would be for entertainment. We created games and simulated worlds to play in and watch; perhaps we are non-player characters in a game world or unwitting actors in a long running virtual reality show (or, more likely, shows).

One idea, which was explored in Frederik Pohl’s short story “The Tunnel under the World”, is that our virtual world exists to test advertising and marketing techniques for the real world. In Pohl’s story, the inhabitants of Tylerton are killed in the explosion of the town’s chemical plant and they are duplicated as tiny robots inhabiting a miniature reconstruction of the town. Each day for the inhabitants is June 15th and they wake up with their memories erased, ready to be subject to the advertising techniques to be tested that day.  The results of the methods are analyzed, the inhabitants are wiped, and it all starts up again the next day.

While this tale is science fiction, Google and Facebook are working very hard to collect as much data as they can about us with an end to monetize all this information. While the technology does not yet exist to duplicate us within a computer simulation, that would seem to be a logical goal of this data collection—just imagine the monetary value of being able to simulate and predict people’s behavior at the individual level. To be effective, a simulation owned by one company would need to model the influences of its competitors—so we could be in a Google World or a Facebook World now so that these companies can monetize us to exploit the real versions of us in the external world.

Given that a simulated world is likely to exist to exploit the inhabitants, it certainly makes sense to not only want to know if we are in such a world, but also to try to undertake an escape. This will be the subject of the next essay.


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Rigged Election

Posted in Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 21, 2016

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has been asserting that the presidential election will be rigged. He seems to have three main assertions regarding the rigging. The first is that the election is being rigged by “the dishonest media” who support “crooked Hillary.” The second is that the polling places are rigged. The third is that there will be widespread voter fraud.

Despite Trump’s assertions about a rigged election, Trump’s vice presidential pick Mike Pence has tried to assure the public that he and Trump will honor the results. Other Republicans have been critical of Trump’s remarks about the election being rigged and there is concern that such remarks are damaging to the American democratic process. There is, of course, a certain irony in the Republican reaction to Trump. This is because Trump is using hyperbolic versions of established Republican tactics.

The idea that the media has a liberal bias which puts conservatives at a disadvantage in the polls dates back to at least the time of Nixon. However, more traditional Republicans have not gone as far as Trump in their attacks on the media. He is thus not breaking new ground, but going to new distances on that ground. Trump does, however, differ in that he seems to merge the alleged media bias in with the rigging of elections. These are, obviously enough, two distinct matters. While the media presumably influences people, this is different from rigging an election. Such rigging involves improper tampering with the actual voting process and not influencing voters.

It is also somewhat ironic that Trump is pre-blaming the media for his possible defeat, given that he is partially a creation of that same media. While estimates do vary, it is believed that Trump received $2-3 billion in free media coverage. While it could be argued that Trump would have become the Republican nominee without this media support, it certainly seems reasonable to consider this a significant factor in his success. This past largesse from the media does not, of course, prove that the media is not biased against him now.

The question of whether the media is biased against Trump is somewhat problematic. On the one hand, most people in the media (liberal and conservative) seem to dislike Trump considerably. This is certainly worth taking into account when critically assessing media coverage of Trump. On the other hand, the majority of the negative coverage is negative because of what Trump does and says and not because the media is twisting the stories. This matter can be settled with considerable effort by having objective experts review all the news coverage of Trump for factual accuracy and the presence of negative bias against him. However, if the results of such an analysis revealed that the coverage was generally accurate, Trump would presumably dismiss the expert analysis as biased and the experts as stupid losers.

Trump’s claim that the electoral process itself will be rigged is one that is quite unusual—Democrats and Republicans generally do not question the integrity of the general process. While rare and isolated incidents are not unknown, the integrity of the system itself seems solid. As others have claimed, this unwarranted attack is potentially dangerous to the American political process and could have harmful consequences. Trump’s use of this tactic would thus seem to indicate either his ignorance or his lack of ethics. Or possibly both.

While Trump’s broad attack on the presidential election is unfounded, his attack does borrow some credibility from legitimate concerns. One is the revelation that the Democratic Party seemed to be stacking the deck for Hillary Clinton against Bernie Sanders. This does raise concerns about the fairness of the party—but it would be something of a leap to take this as evidence that the general election will be rigged against Trump.

Another concern arises from all the various tricks, such as gerrymandering, that are used to modify local elections in favor of certain candidates. While methods are a problem, these tactics would generally not work on a national level. For example, gerrymandering is out. Also, rigging the election in enough states to cost Trump the election would be rather difficult and all but impossible to hide. This is not to say that there are not people who would like to rig it against Trump (or Hillary), just that there are massive logistic and secrecy challenges that they could almost certainly not overcome. In light of this, it seems certain that the election process itself is not rigged against Trump. This is something Paul Ryan and I agree on.

While Republicans are broadly opposing Trump’s assertion about a rigged election, his assertion about voter fraud is a page from the established Republican playbook. While Pence has not backed Trump on the idea that the election is rigged, Pence does support voter ID laws. These ID laws and other methods (such as reducing early voting opportunities) are defended by arguing that voter fraud presents a threat to the integrity of elections. While it is true that voter fraud is not non-existent, all the evidence shows that it almost never occurs. Given that the fraud is almost entirely mythical and the methods proposed by Republicans to combat it disproportionally impact groups more likely to vote for Democrats than Republicans, the logical inference is that these methods are aimed at “rigging” elections in favor of Republicans. As such, Trump is right to be worried that there is something going on aimed at unfairly influencing the election. Ironically, these attempts would seem to be in his favor and not to his disadvantage.

Trump has thus created yet another problem for Republicans. The traditional Republicans generally do not want voters to doubt the legitimacy of elections, but they do want voters to believe that voter fraud exists and must be countered by the means they propose. However, to the degree they succeed in raising fears about voter fraud, they serve to undermine confidence in elections and thus they feed Trump. Trump’s gift to the Republicans has been connecting their notion of voter fraud with his notion that the election will be rigged. This is not a gift they want.

To combat this alleged fraud, Trump has urged his followers to go to polling stations to keep an eye out for it. While voters do have the right to a fair election process, Trump seems to be implying that his followers should engage in voter intimidation—a tactic often used against minority voters in the past. Trump, of course, does not directly say this and his wording, as it so often does, allows him to deny that he is directly urging his followers to do such a thing—even though the message seems to have been received by some.

In addition to being illegal, such intimidation is fundamentally immoral in a democracy. It would also be a form of election rigging, something Trump professes to hate. At least when the rigging is supposed to be against him.


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The Liberal Academy

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on October 19, 2016

While the high cost of college and the woes of student loans tend to be the main focuses of media coverage of universities, there has also been some attention paid to such things as trigger warnings and safe spaces. A trigger warning, in the context of a university class, is an explicit notification that the content a student is supposed to read, view or hear might be upsetting or even cause a post-traumatic stress disorder response. In an academic context, a safe space is supposed to be a place free of harassment, intolerance and hate speech. As might be suspected, some consider trigger warnings and safe spaces potential threats to free speech.

The existence of trigger warnings and safe spaces is also taken by some as a sign that the liberal masters of the academy have gotten out of hand and are imposing their agenda upon students and a few unwilling faculty. There are also concerns that the liberal dominance has marginalized conservative academics. There is some merit to these concerns. There is apparently a roughly 5 to 1 ratio of liberal faculty to conservative faculty and there are certainly examples of how the academy can be hostile towards conservative ideas. And even liberal ideas that do not match the proper ideology.

Given that the stereotypical liberal accuses the stereotypical conservative of marginalizing others and opposing free expression, there is a certain irony in the claim that the liberal is the alleged oppressor and the conservative is the alleged victim. It is also ironic that some of the defenses offered for the marginalization of conservatives in the academy mirror the defenses offered for the marginalization of minorities by some conservatives. This should not, however, be surprising: those with the upper hand tend to use the same basic playbook—although the vocabulary does change.

While I certainly accept liberal concerns regarding the marginalization of minorities and women in the broader society, consistency requires me to also give due consideration to the marginalization of conservatives in the academy. After all, marginalization anywhere is a threat to inclusion everywhere.

I have considered elsewhere the causal factors behind the general liberal dominance of the academy, but it is certainly worth considering this matter again. One concern is that while conservatives might complain about liberal dominance of the academy, there simply might not be enough conservatives interested in becoming professors. This does make some sense—becoming a professor requires spending years getting a terminal degree, grinding through a brutal job search process that is likely to result in part time employment as an adjunct without any benefits. The same amount of effort applied to other fields, such as business endeavors, law or medicine would result in a vastly better chance of getting a much better paying job with greater benefits. Given that conservatives are often cast as interested in being practical and focused on financial success, it would actually seem odd for them to want to go into academics. The stereotypical liberal character seems to better match this career path. This is not to say that an academic job cannot be financially rewarding; but faculty positions yield far less financially than other positions that require analogous education and effort.

Administrative posts can, however, be gold mines—while they do not quite match the financial rewards of the big corporations, the upper echelons do come close in terms of pay, bonuses and perks. But, of course, conservatives taking administrative posts would still leave the actual teaching in liberal hands. But, back to the main subject.

The above reasoning is, of course, is analogous to a stock reply to claims that other areas are lacking in minorities or women: there is no oppression, it is simply the case that minorities and women are not very interested in those areas. So, while conservatives could become professors just as easily as liberals, they wisely elect to pursue more financially lucrative careers. Likewise, liberals tend to pursue less lucrative careers. For example, while there are liberals in the top echelons of the financial firms and corporations (Apple, which does its best to utilize cheap foreign labor and evade taxes is often presented as ruled by liberals), these positions tend to be dominated by conservative white men.

Conservatives can borrow a stock liberal argument here. Liberals typically argue that women and minorities want to be in the fields where they are marginalized, but there are systematic means of keeping them at the margins. For example, liberals often point to how women are treated to explain the small numbers of women in various fields. These methods include the usual suspects: discouraging women from taking classes relevant to the field, steering women away from careers in those fields, hiring biases against women, and hostility towards women who make it into the field.

Conservatives can use this approach and contend that there are many conservatives who want to be professors, but there are systematic means of keeping them marginalized. These means would include the usual suspects: the discouraging of conservative ideas in the classroom, steering conservatives away from careers in academics, hiring biases against those with known conservative views, and hostility towards conservatives who make it into the academy.

While it might be tempting for liberals to respond using analogies to the arguments employed by some conservatives in the face of claims that women and minorities are marginalized, that would be unjust. If being a liberal involves being opposed to marginalization, then moral consistency would require addressing all warranted concerns about the marginalization of conservatives in academics. As noted above, marginalization anywhere is a threat to diversity everywhere.

Making the academy more diverse would thus require approaches analogous to making other fields more diverse. These methods would include tolerance of conservative ideas in the classroom, encouraging conservatives to pursue careers in academics, addressing hiring biases against conservatives (perhaps with some affirmative action hires), and sensitivity training to mitigate hostility against conservatives in the academy.


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Trump & Evangelicals

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on October 17, 2016

Stained glass at St John the Baptist's Anglica...

On the face of it, Trump’s behavior and the values he espouses seem inconsistent with the professed core values of Christianity. These values include a condemnation of adultery and lying as well as injunctions to love neighbors and care for refugees. Trump was, however, born again behind the podium of the candidacy, professing a sudden acceptance of Christian values and a sincere opposition to abortion. This move initially won over many evangelicals.

While American evangelicals are often cast as a monolithic group, there is actually considerable diversity among them. This has been illustrated quite vividly by the responses to Donald Trump within the evangelical camp. While some evangelical leaders condemned Trump when he was but one of many Republican candidates, Trump initially enjoyed considerable support from the evangelical membership. In light of the infamous tape from 2005, Trump’s support among some evangelicals has eroded. As would be expected, Trump’s support among evangelical women has eroded considerably. He has also been strongly condemned by Christianity Today, which will presumably have some negative impact on his support.  However, Trump still enjoys the support of many white evangelicals and some of the leadership. While this matter raises various religious concerns, many of these overlap into philosophy and are worth discussing.

One rather interesting moral problem is how those who support Trump reconcile his seemingly utter inconsistency with Christian values with their support. Their solution is drawn from Christianity itself, specifically Christian forgiveness. Since I also accept the moral value of forgiving people and the strength of character this can sometimes require, I can certainly accept that evangelicals should forgive Trump for his transgressions. However, using this forgiveness to justify continued support is problematic.

Forgiving Trump for past misdeeds is one thing, taking this forgiveness to somehow be relevant to his fitness for the presidency is quite another matter. To use an analogy, I might forgive someone who misused my trust and did considerable harm to me, but I would not thus take my forgiveness to show that they would now be worthy of a position of trust.

It could be countered that Trump is otherwise an exemplary candidate, aside from some past flaws. To use an analogy, if someone misused my trust years ago and afterwards redeemed themselves into a virtuous person, then it would make sense to forgive the person and trust them now. The easy and obvious reply is that Trump does not seem morally redeemed nor does he appear to even be able to see minimal competency for the presidency from where he is.

Those that forgive Trump on the grounds that people should be forgiven for their misdeeds are also morally obligated to extend this forgiveness to Hillary Clinton (and Bill Clinton). As such, those who forgive Trump (and thus do not hold his misdeeds as disqualifying him) must extend the same consideration to Hillary, thus putting the candidates on equal footing morally. That is, forgiven for all their misdeeds.

It could be objected that Trump has professed a new found faith and is thus entitled to the forgiveness that Hillary is not. However, Hillary has a well-established record of faith, although she is rather private about this. While some might doubt her faith and accuse her of hypocrisy in contrast to Trump’s alleged sincerity, this would presumably be yet another sin that must be forgiven.

Assuming that such consistent forgiveness would put Trump and Hillary on equal moral footing, the decision between them would seem to come down to a difference in policy and competence. After all, relentless forgiveness would seem to take moral character out of the equation (which is certainly not something I agree with).

In terms of competence, there is objectively no contest. If I were to claim that I am competent to play professional football on the grounds of my running achievements, I would be no more absurd than Trump claiming that his business achievements qualify him to be president. In contrast, Hillary is an established professional. As such, what is left is policy.

While Trump does not do policy in the traditional way of having fully developed plans, he does say things he wants to do, such as building a wall, banning Muslims, keep out refugees, and put Hillary in jail. While I am not an expert on theology, I do not think that Jesus would do these things. However, born-again Trump has also expressed opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion.

While some religious leaders, such as Pope Francis, have taken efforts to broaden Christian concern beyond same-sex marriage, bathrooms and abortion, these matters tend to dominate public discussions involving religion in the United States. Abortion does, however, seem to be the most important.

Since there is a biblical injunction against killing (although there are numerous exceptions), it is certainly reasonable for people to oppose abortion on religious grounds. It is thus also rational for people to oppose capital punishment and war on religious grounds (something that Pope Francis does). There is also a lot of other stuff in the bible; but people tend to be exceptionally selective when it comes to what they focus on—and many focus on abortion as their defining issue.

Born-again Trump claims he opposes abortion and some evangelicals hope that when he is president he will appoint Supreme Court justices who will overturn Roe v. Wade. To achieve this goal, some evangelicals are willing to ignore other Christian values and support Trump. While some might suspect that they would vote for Satan himself if he promised to appoint justices opposed to abortion, I certainly hope that this is not the case.

Not being an evangelical, I am looking at this matter from the outside; but I would think that violating so many other core values in the hope that Trump might appoint justices that might be able to overturn Roe v. Wade would be morally unacceptable. And this is not even considering what a Trump presidency would be like morally beyond the single issue of abortion. After all, he has expressed a desire to engage in torture and to commit war crimes by taking out the families of suspected terrorists. Trump also claims that he never said this. Trump is, of course, unrelenting in saying that he did not say what he has been recorded saying. Though I am not a professor of religion, I am reasonable sure that lying might be against something in the bible.

While I understand that for some the issue of abortion is of great importance, it is not the only issue of importance. It is certainly not worth the moral equivalent of a deal with the devil in the vain hope that Trump will be able to have Roe v. Wade repealed. As such, I certainly agree with the evangelicals who refuse to support Trump and condemn his misdeeds.


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Trump & Abortion

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 14, 2016

The release of the 2005 tape of Trump apparently bragging about sexually assaulting women proved to be the final straw for some Republicans, most especially women Republicans. While it might seem inconceivable that Trump would have any female supporters left outside of his family, he has a few left. Some defend him by saying that they have heard men say worse. This not so much defends Trump as shows that there are other awful men out there—something that is obviously the case. This is analogous to defending a thief by pointing out that there are people who steal more than that thief does. This is hardly a good defense.

Outside of his family, one of Trump’s strongest female supporters is the president of the Susan B. Anthony List, Marjorie Dannenfelser. She has penned an essay in support of Trump based on the claim that he will be a staunch supporter of the pro-life cause. She did, however, condemn Trump’s words in the tape during an interview with NPR in October, 2016. Backing Trump is a change of position for the Susan B. Anthony List. On January 26, 2016 the organization condemned Trump as unacceptable on grounds that seem quite reasonable given the group’s values. Specifically, concerns were expressed about his lack of commitment to the goals of the pro-life movement as they see it (overturning Roe v. Wade and defunding Planned Parenthood). Trump was also condemned for his treatment of women.

It is certainly tempting to dismiss Dannenfelser’s current view of Trump on the grounds that she held the opposite view in the recent past. However, this would be to commit the tu quoque fallacy. This fallacy occurs when it is inferred that what a person claims now is false because it is inconsistent with what they said in the past. While two inconsistent claims cannot both be true at the same time, their inconsistency does not show which claim is false (and both could be false). In the case at hand, the past claim was that Trump could not be counted on to support the pro-life cause and the current claim is that Trump can be counted on to do so. While both cannot be true at the same time, there still remains the question of which claim is true now.

As noted above, Dannenfelser has argued that Trump can be trusted to support the pro-life cause and will, if elected, act in ways that the Susan B. Anthony List would approve, such as defunding Planned Parenthood and appointing Supreme Court justices who would overturn Roe v. Wade. From a logical standpoint, the question is whether there is adequate evidence to believe that the Trump who was condemned on January 26, 2016 has changed substantially on policy so that he is, in fact, the Trump that she claims he is today. Alternatively, it could be contended that the SBA List was wrong about Trump then and is right about him now.

Since Trump has never held any office, there is no record of actual public policy actions in his past regarding abortion or anything else. As such, the only evidence that he means what he says now is that he is saying it and claims he means what he says. Since candidates routinely say what they believe will get them elected, there is an obvious credibility concern in play here. It is, of course, possible that Trump’s views changed since January—people do change their minds. But, there seems to be a dearth of evidence regarding his commitment to the pro-life cause and willingness to act upon his claims. This is especially worth considering in the face of past promises by politicians on these maters.

Dannenfelser and others who are dedicated to the pro-life cause can also make an argument in favor of Trump by contrasting him with Hillary Clinton. Clinton does have an established record as being pro-choice and it is almost certain that anyone she would appoint to the Supreme Court would uphold Roe v. Wade. She is also favorably inclined towards Planned Parenthood. Since Trump and Hillary are the only viable options, and Hillary is clearly pro-choice, then Trump would seem to be the only viable choice for someone choosing between the two on the basis of the abortion issue. As such, Dannenfelser’s backing of Trump makes sense in the context of the issue of abortion.

While Trump has claimed he supports the anti-abortion cause, the SBA List also condemned Trump on the grounds that he treats women poorly. Dannenfelser did condemn what Trump said in the 2005 tape, but gave reasons as to why anti-abortion people should back Trump over Hillary. Dannenfelser accepts that Trump has moral problems in regards to how he treats women. She counters this by contending that Bill Clinton’s past misdeeds and Hillary Clinton’s role in criticism the women involved shows that Hillary Clinton also has moral problems in regards to how she treats women. Because of this alleged moral equivalence in regards to their treatment of women, this factor cannot be used to pick between them. As such, other factors must be used to justify picking one over the other. For Dannenfelser, the decisive issue is that of abortion and, as noted above, she claims that Trump’s expressed views match her own. Thus, Trump is the rational choice for her.

Dannenfelser is right in terms of her method: if two candidates are equivalent in regards to one factor, then that factor cannot warrant picking one over the other. To use an analogy, if a person is picking between two SUVs and they have the same poor gas mileage, then that factor would provide no rational basis for picking one SUV over the other. The decision would need to be based on other factors, such as safety or features.

There is, however, the question of whether or not Trump and Hillary are morally equivalent in regards to their treatment of women. On the face of it, Hillary seems to have a far better record than Trump—even if she did attack some of the women involved with Bill, her behavior does not seem to be as bad as Trump’s. There is also the fact that Hillary seems to be a fairly consistent supporter of women in regards to a broad array of issues and in regards to policy. Trump, of course, has no public policy track record—all that can be presented as evidence is what he has said and what he has done as a person and a businessman. If Hillary is not morally as awful as Trump, then this would provide grounds for picking Hillary over Trump on the matter of the treatment of women.

Even if it is accepted that Hillary is not as morally awful as Trump, then this need not be decisive. This is because other factors can obviously be of equal or greater concern. As such, if someone regards a candidate’s expressed position on abortion as being the determining factor, then it would still be rational for her to vote for him even if she regarded Trump as morally worse than Hillary. This would require having faith in Trump’s commitment to the anti-abortion cause. Since abortion is a moral issue, there is a certain irony in putting trust in the moral commitment of a person who is regarded as morally awful even by many of his supporters. That said, Trump has (like so many politicians before him) claimed that he backs the anti-abortion cause and this provides those who regard abortion as the decisive issue with rational grounds for picking one candidate over the other.

Presidential Predictions

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 13, 2016

The Revelation of St John: 4. The Four Riders ...

It is time, once again, for forecasts of doom. I invite readers to post their predictions about what dire and awful things will happen if a specific candidate is elected President. While Trump and Hillary are the only viable contenders, predictions about the others are also welcome.



Trump & Misogyny

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on October 12, 2016

Watching Trump is rather like an observing a submarine test: you wonder how low it can sink. Like an amazing sub, Trump keeps reaching new depths. An old recording of Trump was recently released which features the Republican candidate saying rather awful things. This has cost him the endorsement of some Republicans, but he still seems to be incredibly resistant to damage: he had managed to spew forth a stream of awful things such that any one of which would have been a career ending injury for almost anyone else.

While there have been some calls for Trump to leave the race, Trump has so far decided that he is staying in. As should be expected, Trump has presented a reply to the situation that includes his usual tactics.  While most would not consider Trump philosophical, he does say things that are certainly interesting to discus in this context.

Trump begins his response by pointing out that the recording is from 2005 and he asserts that he has changed since then. As such, he should not be criticized now for what he did then. This defense potentially has merit: if he has reformed, then while the recording shows that Trump was awful, that was then and this is now. From a moral standpoint, the main concern is whether or not Trump is still the same sort of person he was in 2005. Interestingly, Trump’s initial defense did not include claims that his remarks were out of character; presumably he accepts that this behavior was in accord with his character in 2005.

While there are no known recent remarks about women by Trump that exactly match his 2005 remarks, he does not seem to have reformed in any morally meaningful way. He casually and routinely engages in misogyny and sexism and this gives lie to his defense. As such, the 2005 remarks do reflect both who he was and who he is. If Trump had shown signs of moral growth, then this defense could have merit—there are certainly cases of people who redeem themselves and become better. Unfortunately, there seems to be no evidence of this in Trump’s case.

Trump also endeavored to use a red herring (a rhetorical device in which someone attempts to divert attention from the original issue) to switch attention from his remarks. Rather, he hoped to get people to ignore them and focus instead on his assertions that “We are losing our jobs, we are less safe than we were eight years ago and Washington is totally broken.”

It could be countered that this is not a red herring because the character of a president does not matter in the face of such alleged problems. This approach does have potential merit and will be addressed in the context of Bill Clinton, who seems to have been used in another Trump red herring.

In his response, Trump also asserted that “Bill Clinton has said far worse to me on the golf course.” This could also be regarded as a red herring—the matter of whether Bill has said worse things or not is a different issue from the matter of Trump’s remarks. Even if Bill has said worse things, this proves nothing about Trump’s remarks.

As mentioned before, perhaps Trump’s defenders could make the case that Bill Clinton was an excellent president despite the things he allegedly said. Given that many successful leaders have had awful moralities in regards to their views of women, a case could be made here arguing that a leader who will do the job well should not be assessed based on such alleged failings. Put crudely, it does not matter what the leader wants to grab, because “it’s the economy, stupid.” While this does have some appeal, Bill’s behavior did have damaging consequences for him and the country, so there is clearly a downside to this quality in a leader. There is also the moral question of whether or not the tradeoff would be worth it, especially if a good leader could be found who was not a misogynist.

If Bill were running against Trump, then showing that Bill is just as bad would be a relevant response. This is because if Trump and Bill were equally awful in this regard, then Trump’s awfulness would not disadvantage him relative to Bill—at least under a rational assessment. To use an analogy, if a HP laptop and an Asus laptop had equally short battery life, then battery life would not serve as a reason to pick one over the other. But, of course, Trump is not running against Bill. He is running against Hillary. As such, it is no surprise that he also attacked Hillary by saying, “Bill Clinton has actually abused women, and Hillary has bullied, attacked, shamed, and intimidated his victims.”

While attacking Hillary can also be regarded as a red herring in that it proves nothing about the matter involving Trump, it is certainly relevant in assessing the two candidates against each other. Trump is, in effect, trying to establish that Hillary is just as bad (or worse) than he is in regards to treatment of women. Trump does have some ammunition here—he can point to Hillary’s alleged role in the handling of the “bimbo eruptions” that plagued Bill in the 1990s.

While there certainly seem to be some legitimate concerns about Hillary’s behavior, she can point to an otherwise solid record on women’s issue. Even if the claims about her misdeeds are true, she can certainly make a much stronger case than Trump that she has changed since the 1990s. After all, the recording of Trump is more recent than the 1990s and Trump relentlessly affirms his misogyny, thus showing that he has not changed significantly. As such, while Hillary can, perhaps, be justly criticized for her actions in the 1990s, it would be a false equivalence to say that she is as bad as Trump in this regard.

Some of Trump’s defenders have asserted that Trump did not say anything that other men do not regularly say. That is, what Trump did was not a problem because this sort of thing is a common practice. The easy reply to this defense is that an appeal to common practice is a fallacy: even if something is commonly done, it does not follow from this that it is good, justified or right. All that follows from something being commonly done is that it is, well, commonly done.

It could also be argued that it is hypocritical of men to criticize Trump because men have, no doubt, said or thought things equally as bad. While it is surely true that everyone has said or thought something awful, these tend to be anomalies for most men. Everyone has their awful moments and this should be taken into account when judging a person. If Trump had but this one blight on an otherwise decent character, then it would be reasonable to judge him by his consistent character rather than an inconsistent remark. However, these remarks are not an aberration for Trump—they are utterly consistent with his character.


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